Nov 24, 2008

¡Talking Cholula!

Scratch, Tear, Build, Rebuild, and get Dirty: Patricia Cué’s escapade with students into Mexico

“Instant Messaging” was the name of the show that exhibited their capstone project: they own cell phones and use social-networking sites, dubbed themselves the “IM Generation” and me “IM Picante”.

Technology- and brand-savvy, this was a group of twenty design students that traded T-shirts for grapefruits and ate crickets at the market in Cholula, Mexico, during a ten-week-long, full immersion cross-cultural experience.

Like many of their generation, my students connect with the rest of the world through such user-generated mediums as IM, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr. This is the generation that experiences culture — their own and others — via the Internet. For these students, the world has become an abstract and accelerated blur where information often supplants experience.

Designers work with people, and cross-cultural experiences provide an ideal opportunity for them to connect directly and physically with their audience, and to witness very different realities firsthand. Such experiences invariably present students with the challenge of going beyond the superficial appreciation of a culture, beyond being tourists, beyond the initial fascination with the “different” and the “curious.” During this process, the students encountered many situations that challenged their moral values and shook them out of their comfort zones.

Eight of the twenty Ohio design students who participated in a ten-week full immersion cross-cultural experience in Cholula, Mexico. L-R: Coleman Siemral, Laura Biel, Abigail Hanson, Michael Bosyj, Nora Merecicky, Josh Reith, Ian Victor, Meredith Post.

Despite having to acclimate to new levels of noise, catcalls, PDA, stray animals, decay, and potholes — these being just some of the students’ observations — all the students expressed a sense of celebration in this new culture, of life being lived. They were there to get dirty, to observe others in their natural environment, to rebuild their personal aesthetics, and to develop a renewed sense of responsibility as designers.

American-branded sweatpants, T-shirts, backpacks, flip-flops, and caps made up their common uniform. They couldn’t help looking and feeling American, every minute of the day. They didn’t speak the language, they lived in a hotel, and everything in their immediate world was different. How to even start functioning in such an alien environment?

However, in this new culture, not all the familiar cultural references were gone. Disney characters were being used to brand schools and education; American Eagle products were being produced in remote Mixtec villages, McDonald’s was serving the exact same hamburger as “at home,” and Walmart’s building proudly stood by the Pyramids in Teotihuacán.

American culture is so dominant outside the U.S. that understanding the relationship of the U.S. as a major producer of messages and meaning, with the rest of the world — its customers and absorbers — presents crucial ethics-related issues. It therefore became important that students experienced firsthand the relationship between what designers produce and the way others interpret that meaning.

In the future, American graphic design students’ work will inevitably reach cultural minorities and international markets. U.S. designers need to prepare for a rapidly evolving Latino market that receives more attention than ever from the media, the political class, and the corporate sector. We need to better respond to the rise of biculturalism and think about service and product offerings that may begin with a consumer in one country and be realized by a consumer in another.

The projects developed during this experience forced students to interact with the local community (Cholula). Their projects’ success was judged on the degree to which students were able to allow cultural norms and their new environment to influence their personal aesthetics. Strong personal convictions, issues of global concern, and being in the thick of a new culture became the subject matter of design. Negotiating the differences, adjusting their tolerances, and recognizing the bridges that design can build made experiencing a foreign culture inspiring to all.


The Projects

The Mexican Identity: work by Robin Bundi, Erin Blanda and Josh Reith

Students explored the relationship between design and literature through a visual essay based on Juan Rulfo’s novel “Pedro Páramo.” Through the reading of this Mexican Literature Classic, students identified key aspects that construct the Mexican Identity such as the concept of death, the land, magical thinking, and family structure.

Vernacular Typography: work by Ian Victor, Nora Merecicky and Coleman Simeral

As a response to our fascination with the richness of street graphics, the “Se Pintan Rótulos” (We paint Signs) project attempted to integrate the colors, textures, humor and spontaneity of these vernacular graphics into typographic studies that apply basic design principles.

Coming in contact with craft and with the simple act of making, the book making work shop explored traditional binding techniques using local, recycled materials. “Scratch, Tear, and Get Dirty” became the motto for our bookmaking workshop.


Traditional, low-tech letter press and transfer techniques were also used to design typographic interpretations of words and phrases that manifest American culture.

Social Issues, Public Space

The projects explore the potential of design in the public space arena: establishing a dialogue with the community on an issue of social concern. Students worked in groups that dealt with issues such as animal mistreatment, American branding and sweatshop production, child car safety, and the cultural notion of beauty.

Mexico Lindo / Abigail Hanson and Holly Young: Students explored the theme of native versus foreign, and questioned the perception and representation of beauty through photography and anonymous displays throughout the town of Cholula. “Mexico Lindo” was an intervention in which photography was used to frame visual manifestations of the local culture that stood out to the American students for their beauty. The team focused on scenes or places that they felt were underappreciated or even ignored by the local community. The carefully framed images were displayed in the same place they were taken, as aesthetic references and as visual statements that heightened the value of the local.

Compre, Compre sus Camisetas! (“Buy them; get them; buy your T-shirts!”) / Samantha Setterlin, Charlie Touvell, Courtney Badgley, Lacie Turcott and Meredith Post: This project resulted from the awkwardness and discomfort many students experienced in being perceived as stereotypical Americans, and from standing out like “sore thumbs”. They became living icons of American culture in all their positive and negative projections, regarded by Mexicans with a mixture of fascination, curiosity, and distrust.

The goal was to market themselves as a brand—as Americans. This branding reflected how they felt they were being perceived. Influenced by a visit to a local textile factory, or maquiladora, students bought a number of plain white T-shirts, made in Mexico, and touted them as being “genuine American” by attaching fake brand labels. The team roamed the local market in Cholula with their goods on their shoulders, calling “Compre, compre, sus camisetas!” The experiment was a huge success, selling far more T-shirts than expected. Those that remained were traded for fruit or popsicles

Projects sponsored by the Ohio University “Mexico Art and Design” study abroad program, Winter ’08. Special thanks to my students, John Bullock, Raúl Vazquez de Lara, and Germán Montalvo.
Patricia Cué received her BFA in 1989 from the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico and completed her graduate degree at the Basel School of Design in Switzerland in 1992. Before her current position at San Diego State University, Cué was Assistant Professor in graphic design at Ohio University (2001-2008), where she also directed the “Mexico Art and Design” study abroad program.

As a design professional, Patricia has worked for clients in the U.S. and Mexico, such as the Getty Conservation Institute, Ohio University, Museo Dolores Olmedo, the Mexican Stock Exchange, Arquine International Architecture Magazine, and the government of Puebla and Mexico City.

In her research and in her design practice, Patricia explores cultural sustainability and ethics. She has developed cultural identity projects for Mexican indigenous populations, and she is currently working on a book documentation of vernacular wall painting for music in Mexico. Her research has been published in the AIGA Voice Journal for Graphic Design, Fahrenheit Contemporary Art, and in “Drawing in the Design Process” by Peter Olpe. She has received design awards from Quorum / Mexican Design Council, CSCA, and UCDA.

1 Comment

  • Very cool. Found on Quipsologies.

    I went on a similar trip in 2002 with Ohio University. We also went to Mexico, however it was only for one week. It was a fantastic, eye-opening trip. Glad to see that the Ohio University graphic design department is not only still doing these trips, but making them even better. Congrats to Patricia! She is such a great teacher, designer, and human being.

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